The best books that leave you questioning identity (and maybe reality, too)

Ryan Tim Morris Author Of This Never Happened
By Ryan Tim Morris

Who am I?

When I start a new book, my aim is to write something completely different from what I’ve written before. It’s challenging, but also important to keep things fresh. To me, a blank slate before each story is thrilling. To start with nothing, and end with something wholly original. This Never Happened, my third book, began with a feeling we’ve all had before: the feeling of not belonging. I asked myself, “What if I really didn't belong here, but was meant for somewhere else entirely?” From there, I created a character who grows increasingly unsure of his own identity and reality, themes that are also present in my selection of books below.


I wrote...

This Never Happened

By Ryan Tim Morris,

Book cover of This Never Happened

What is my book about?

Around Coney Island, Cepik Small is known as “Epic” but his life could not be less so. And no matter how hard he tries, he can’t shake the feeling that he was born in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The cocktail of drugs he takes daily doesn’t help and the face-blindness from which he suffers only adds to his feeling of isolation.

Just as he begins seeing a new and unorthodox therapist, Epic also meets the bold and blithe Abigail Ayr. And when a novel found on the subway begins to strangely mirror events in his own life, the mysteries of Epic Small’s dreams quickly and uncontrollably begin to unravel.

The books I picked & why

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1Q84

By Haruki Murakami, Jay Rubin (translator), Philip ­Gabriel (translator)

Book cover of 1Q84

Why this book?

1Q84 did a lot to help my book get to where it ended up going. I even quoted a line from it at the beginning. This was my first foray into Murakami, and I was never once intimidated by its 1000+ page count (and I try my best to stick to 300-page books). Quite simply, it’s maybe my favourite book of all time.

There’s plenty to unpack in 1Q84, but for the purposes of this recommendation, the book really hits on the ideas of identity and reality, as our dual protagonists discover their places in their worlds may not be exactly what they’d always known.

It's a wild mix of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Magical Realism with cults and killers and parallel worlds and fairy-like creatures sprinkled in.


Mistaken

By Neil Jordan,

Book cover of Mistaken

Why this book?

Mistaken is the tale of two boys (Kevin and Gerald) who are remarkably similar in appearance, though far from similar in affluence and background. The story is set in Dublin and told from the point of view of Kevin, now older and having just attended Gerald’s funeral. It slipstreams through past and present, and at nearly every corner it leaves Kevin questioning his own identity and memories, and wondering if perhaps the boys’ connection had even greater implications than he thought. In my book, there is a fictional novel within the novel, about twins who aren’t twins, and it is loosely inspired by the meeting of Kevin and Gerald in Mistaken.

Neil Jordan is an underrated talent, and his writing is superbly atmospheric here.


The Horned Man

By James Lasdun,

Book cover of The Horned Man

Why this book?

Such a peculiar book. The Horned Man is not for those who want answers or resolutions. By the time the final page is turned you'll find yourself with more questions than you had at any other point in the book. It takes the Unreliable Narrator device to the extreme, to the point where you don’t really believe anything from the get-go, a unique way to tell a story, but it works here. This book is dark, smart, uncomfortable, and it is unlike anything you'll ever read. Lasdun’s prose is also exceptional, and I’ve often found myself getting lost in his paragraphs, enjoying how I can stop and really take the time to re-read how the author has crafted his story, and lead you exactly where he wanted to.


The Hollow House

By Carlo Dellonte,

Book cover of The Hollow House

Why this book?

A man is driving to some oceanside cliffs to end his life. On the way, he stops for a night at a B&B in a small fishing village. He meets a girl, who has disappeared in the morning, and the man thinks, “What the heck. I’ll just stick around here and pretend I’m the girl’s boyfriend (who no one in the village has met before) and wait until she returns.” The villagers grow increasingly suspicious (about everything, it seems) and the man is soon caught in an uncontrollable deception of his own making.

This is a really odd, really well-written Gothic tale by an author I’d never heard of (who doesn’t seem to have written anything before or since), but I picked it up because its vagueness intrigued me. It’s the interplay of the main character trying his best to pretend he’s someone he’s not, for reasons even he’s not entirely sure of, that gets me with The Hollow House.


The New York Trilogy

By Paul Auster,

Book cover of The New York Trilogy

Why this book?

The New York Trilogy is a collection of three separate postmodern detective stories that are seemingly separate, but also strangely connected.

“City of Glass” follows a writer who becomes a private investigator and begins losing sense of his identity and reality as he becomes entrenched in a case. “Ghosts” is about a different private detective on a different case (or is it?). “The Locked Room” focuses on a writer (but have we met him before?) who is finding it more and more difficult to write anything at all.

The stories dance around a metafiction narrative and there are enough philosophical ruminations within The New York Trilogy to allow readers the opportunity to try and figure out how (or if) they are connected. But perhaps they’re all just a cloud-like concoction from a psyche that maybe doesn’t have the answers either?


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